The U.S. House of Representatives will vote this week on whether to halt the resettlement of 10,000 Syrian refugees in the country over the next 12 months following the coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamic State in Paris last week.
Authorities have said a Syrian passport was found near a bomber’s body in Paris, prompting more than 20 governors to resist resettlement in their states.
It’s the latest development in the national debate about the threat posed by refugees.
“We cannot put our national security at risk by waiving through hundreds of thousands of people from countries ruled by terrorist organizations, who would pose a threat to Americans on American soil,” U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, said in a statement. “The terrorist attack in Paris on Friday could have happened here.”
Gov. Nathan Deal on Tuesday stood by an executive order preventing Syrian refugees from being resettled in Georgia.
Legal experts have said Deal and other governors making similar moves after the attacks in Paris don’t have the authority to stop the federal program.
Less than 2,200 Syrian refugees have been resettled in America since October 2011. Georgia has taken in just 59 of these individuals.
“I think there are a lot of concerns, and I’m glad Georgia was one of the states that said we want no more refugees,” state Rep. Carl Rogers, R-Gainesville, said.
About 70,000 refugees, from countries such as Burma, Somalia and Afghanistan, were resettled in the United States in 2014.
“Slamming the door in their faces would be a betrayal of our values,” Obama said during remarks at the G20 economic summit in Antalya, Turkey.
Refugee status is difficult to obtain, more so than a work, tourist or student visa, for example.
Under U.S. law, a refugee must have a well-founded fear of persecution based on one of the five “protected grounds”: religion, political opinion, race, nationality and membership in a particular social group.
According to the U.S. Department of State, resettling refugees can be a lengthy process, from 12 to 18 months, involving multiple in-person interviews, medical checks and biometric screenings. Refugees must also receive a reference from the U.N., a U.S. embassy or nonprofit.
“Refugees are the single most scrutinized and vetted individuals to travel to the United State of any form of immigration,” said J.D. McCrary, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, a humanitarian organization that connects refugees with social services. “The security fears … are completely unsubstantiated.”
Additionally, organizations like the IRC must sponsor refugees, taking charge of their immediate financial needs when arriving in the United States.
No refugee to complete the screening process has ever been arrested for implementing or planning domestic terrorism, McCrary said.
“We’re disappointed by the decision to re-victimize those who have been most vulnerable to these kinds of attacks,” McCrary said. “The events that occurred in Paris … is exactly the same type of terror that (Syrian refugees) have been fleeing for the past several years now.”
Metro Atlanta has long been a hub for refugees, particularly in the neighborhoods of Decatur, Clarkston and Stone Mountain.
Lower costs of living, decent job prospects and access to government services like public transportation has made the city a home for Bosnians and other families from war-torn countries.
But some lawmakers fear a strain will be placed on government coffers if refugees keep coming to Georgia.
“I’m compassionate enough to want to help people, but then again, we can’t take care of veterans and here we are going to welcome everybody else in,” state Rep. Emory Dunahoo, R-Gainesville, said.
In some ways, the Syrian refugee debate has become a tug-of-war between the virtues of compassion and national security interests.
“Though I have great empathy for the Syrian people … the individuals who are coming here still need to be properly vetted,” said state Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville. “At some point, you’ve got to make decisions that are protective of our well-being, safety, culture and way of life.”
Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said the issue might be a turning point for Republicans vying for the presidency in 2016.
“There was already a component of the electorate that is reluctant to have any additional people coming in, particularly individuals coming from the Middle East,” Bullock said, adding that he expects the GOP to use the issue as a way to play up its foreign policy credentials.
On a broader level, the refugee issue could shift the dynamics of the nation’s contentious immigration debate, Bullock said.
“Being anti-immigrant, up to this point, has generally been interpreted as being opposed to Hispanics,” he added. “Now, being anti-immigrant takes on a different perspective.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.